Creating a better Somerset: a Distinctive Discussion with Bill Revans
As a lifelong Somerset resident with more than 20 years’ experience of serving as a councillor, Bill Revans is pragmatic about the challenges facing England’s seventh biggest county.
And if the leader of Somerset Council had to prioritise one task, it would be to decarbonise, and improve, bus services across the county.
Enabling people to travel sustainably is the kind of support that he says could help the county that he loves ‘deliver its potential and bring opportunity to more people’.
This pressing need for better public transport in Somerset was just one of the topics discussed at Distinctive’s latest webinar.
The event explored the challenges and opportunities facing Bill and his team at Somerset Council as the new unitary authority looks to deliver its plan to make the county a better place to live and work.
Here are the key points from the discussion.
A new voice for Somerset
It is a little over six weeks since Somerset Council came into being on 1 April, bringing together the services previously provided by the four district councils in Somerset (Mendip, Sedgemoor, Somerset West and Taunton, and South Somerset) alongside services provided by Somerset County Council.
Commenting on the move, Bill said: “This is a ‘merging’ of these councils; it’s not about a takeover; it’s about combining the strengths of the five authorities and providing a single clear voice for Somerset nationally and internationally.”
The new unitary authority has wasted no time in setting out a four-year plan ‘to create a fairer, greener, resilient, more flourishing Somerset that cares for, and listen to, its residents’.
The plan highlights an opportunity for Somerset to have a stronger voice, unified for the country as a clear benefit of bringing the councils together.
Whether this will result in further devolution for the county is too early to say, although it is felt that there is an opportunity for Somerset to make its case nationally more confidently and clearly.
On the question of whether Somerset Council would push for more devolved powers, Bill said the council was in an ‘ongoing conversation with government and local authority neighbours’.
Bill was clear that access to transport is key to unlocking opportunity for people. Somerset Council is already looking to improve bus system and is working with partners to extend services to rural areas.
While new train services could offer benefits in the long term or ferry services linking the Somerset coast to South Wales, he said in the immediate term, the county needs a modern, responsive bus service network: “There will be much we can learn from the West of England Combined Authority (WECA)’s work to develop a Dynamic Demand-Responsive Transport that puts passengers in control of when and where they travel, through small capacity but highly flexible bus services.”
Several questions were asked by webinar attendees on the topic of housing and its role in levelling up opportunities across the region.
Bill discussed the multi-faceted nature of the problem. Pointing out that there are 35,000 more people in the county than 10 years ago, yet 5,000 fewer younger people aged 18-30.
Homes are increasingly out of the reach of this cohort.
“If this demographic trend continues, we’re shoring up all sorts of future problems. We need to help younger people remain in Somerset,” he said.
Supply side problems are also an issue with phosphate water pollution a significant barrier to development, especially in areas close to the Levels and moorlands.
“I don’t see a long-term solution coming to this issue without forming genuine partnerships with farmer, water companies and developers,” Bill added.
“It’s vital we keep the Levels and local water supplies clean. Too much time has been spent on blaming people. The focus needs to be on solutions. We need a change in how farmers manage the land to reduce their impact. We also need to look at construction methods and work with water companies to reduce overflow. Political leadership needed to drive forward solutions.”
Upskilling and training
Education is another focus for the new council. Bill said Somerset schools have underperformed in recent years and there is a lack of higher education provision. “We need to be a strategic leader in improving the education, skills, and vocational training offer at all levels,” he said.
Specifically, Somerset Council is looking to work with Hinkley Point C and EDF, which is on site at Bridgwater, creating Britain’s first nuclear new build in a generation, to exploit upskilling and training opportunities in the clean energy sector.
Partnered health solutions
In the same month that Somerset Council launched, Somerset NHS Foundation Trust merged with Yeovil District Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to form a single trust covering the whole county. Bill said it would be a priority for the council to work with the trust to address challenges for delivering health and social care services.
Planning, place and partnerships
On planning, Bill confirmed the council was moving forward with Somerset’s Local Plan and the need for a planning framework for the next 30 years.
The future of Somerset towns’ highstreets, and the increasing importance of a mixed offer from town centres, which moves away from a reliance on retail was also covered.
Bill concluded that while Somerset Council is committed to its four priorities, progress to move towards a better county to live and work, which also supports the green agenda, this could only be achieved in partnership with all stakeholders.
“Please come to the table. We all love Somerset. We are all much stronger together,” he said.
“A united response to the challenges we face, and the opportunities this county has, is what will make our plan a reality.”
Watch the webinar
With thanks to Bill and all who attended the session; we hope you found it interesting.
You can catch up on the video below.
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